The best playlist of my life … and maybe yours too?

I’ve always enjoyed compiling music. In the old days it was recording from vinyl onto cassette tapes, or recording songs from the radio where you had to try and stop the recording just after the song ended, but before Tony Blackburn or Simon Bates spoke and spoiled everything.

I used to compile tapes for friends (for friends read girls). They took ages to compile, each track carefully chosen, sometimes with accompanying lyrics handwritten out of sheer love and desire.  I would sometimes have to post the tapes in the mail in the hope she would receive, listen and come running.

It never really worked but it was immense fun. These days it’s much easier with Spotify, Apple Music or any other streaming service where 30-million tracks are just a click away, in high fidelity, with no DJ interruptions. And so it is that old fashioned, analogue compilations have now given way to digital playlists.

I tend to build playlists these days principally for me rather than for girls, but it’s still a great way to gather together certain genres, or composers, or songs from a particular decade, songs for dinner parties, songs for house parties, songs for flying, songs to run along to, songs to cook with, songs to sing along to.

The options are endless, but my most recent playlist has undoubtedly been the most fun to compile, and I wanted share this with you because it’s something you might want to try.  Mine’s called ‘Andy’s life playlist’, but you might want to give yours a different name.

Here’s how it works:

  1. You must add a song to the playlist if, and only if, it was a significant thing for you, at some stage of your life. It might be something you fell in love with, obsessed over, or just something that is so significantly memorable that it transports you back to a very specific place/time/age. Terry Jacks – Seasons In The Sun was the first 45/single I ever bought from Casa Disco. I was 9yrs old and I fell in love with music. I was on the way to becoming me.  So that’s in.
  2. It MIGHT be a song you didn’t particularly like, but which is so strongly associated with a specific life event that it has to go in. When our first child was born, I remember returning to the car bleary eyed and emotionally punch drunk, turning on the radio when ‘Sleeping Satellites’ by Tasmin Archer came on the radio.  That song will forever be associated with my wife and our son, and whenever I hear it I am immediately transported back to Milton Keynes Hospital Car Park in the autumn of 1992. So that’s in too.
  3. You MUST NOT exclude a song because you now find it cheesy, facile, simplistic or juvenile. This is just your 2017 self filtering and tainting your thinking. You loved that song back then when (and because) you were pure, you were untainted by other opinions, politics, self awareness and snobbiness. You just reacted biologically to the words, the beat, the harmonies, the chord changes. It affected the real you, it was you. I remember singing with a hairbrush into my bedroom mirror miming and dancing to ‘I Can Do It’ by The Rubettes. I was Alan Williams, I even had similar hair. So that has to be in, whether I like it or not.
  4. You CANNOT add a song that you like now, but didn’t like at the time, just to try and make yourself look cool. Stop playing these games. Just because you should have liked The Jam doesn’t mean ‘Going Underground’ should be on the playlist.
  5. Certain songs evoke memories of life events like nothing else can, and that’s what you’re trying to capture here. On the first anniversary of my dad’s untimely death, I remember I felt miserable all day. I was working in London and can recall coming home on the train that evening. It was a hot summer’s evening as I stared out of the window feeling bluesy when ‘Warning Signs’ started to play through my headphones. And when Chris Martin said “... and the truth is, I miss you, yeah the truth is, I miss you … so“, I started to cry, and I cried all the way to my car. But I felt happy, I felt connected to Dad somehow. You could be forgiven for not hearing that ‘so’ at the end of that line, but I don’t, and I never will. I don’t understand how all this stuff works but it’s very powerful, and that song evokes memories of my Dad and specifically his loss, like nothing else ever can. I often cry when I hear it now, and whilst Chris probably wrote it about Gwyneth, or some other lover, to me it’s it’s about Dad. It’s between me and him. That’s the kind of stuff that has to go in.
  6. And it doesn’t have to just be old stuff, you CAN add new songs to the playlist. If a song affects you in 2017, it’s just as much a part of your life playlist as the song that affected you in 1973. You might discover a song from ’73 that you hear for the first time in 2017, so that’s fine to go in too, but you CANNOT add a ’73 song you didn’t ever like or have no connection to, but you now wish you had (see point 4 above) – that’s one for your fake public playlist.

Just remember, this playlist is designed to be a musical portfolio for your life, not for anyone else’s. Build it for you. You won’t be able to do it in one go, just keep it running in the background and add to it whenever and wherever you remember a song. There’s no limit, it can be as short or as long as you like.

Also, please note that your playlist must never be shared. Once you know you might share you will start to filter, and it will no longer be your pure playlist, but rather a modified playlist you’d like others to think was yours. This is very important.  I have some right shit on mine, stuff I’ll never admit to in public, but it’s part of me, no one will ever know, it’s my little secret, it’s my life playlist.

And finally, but just as importantly, you must edit the title and append a number to each song title, e.g, ‘Seasons in the sun’ becomes ‘9_Seasons In the Sun’, ‘Hold me now’ becomes ’18_Hold me now’, ‘Linger’ becomes ’28_Linger”, and so on. This number is the age you were (or as close as you can approximate) when you connected with the song.

And this is the special bit. When you now play your playlist where the songs are ordered alphabetically, you now get to listen to the soundtrack of your life.

Belinda

 

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Flawed logic and sub-optimal living

In my latest self help article, I look at the important role of logic in solving everyday problems, and examine, through mathematical reasoning, how flawed logic can lead to sub-optimal living.

I learned this the hard way, failure is the best way to learn, so allow me to share my mistakes with you, so you don’t fall into the same ‘unhappiness trap’ as I.

Let’s take the everyday dilemma of choosing an orange from a bowl of oranges to illustrate the point.

This is how my logic navigated me through life (before I achieved enlightenment):

Let’s say I have four oranges in my fruit bowl, three of which still look fresh, young, zesty and healthy, but one orange is on the turn, with blemished skin, dark patches and bruises forming. And let’s say I fancy an orange. Which one do you think I eat? I don’t choose at random, I use a form of logic that goes like this – eat the one on the turn because tomorrow it will have gone over and will be ruined, save the healthy ones, they still have a shelf-life.  And so I eat the fourth orange, the one on the turn. I find the experience mediocre at best. Satisfaction 50%

The following day I have three oranges in my fruit bowl, two of which still look fresh, young, zesty and healthy, and one that’s now on the turn, with blemished skin, dark patches and bruises forming … I eat the one on the turn. Satisfaction 50%. The following day I have two oranges, one on the turn, one healthy … Satisfaction 50%. On day four the final orange is looking very shabby, it’s on the turn, logic dictates it won’t last, I’m tired of oranges but I eat it. Satisfaction 30%.

Let’s assume the average orange delivers 10 units of enjoyment, my total enjoyment from my four oranges is 50% x 10 x 3 + 30% x 10 = 18.

This is how an enlightened person applies thinking in his life:

The smart person fancies an orange and discovers he has four in his fruit bowl, three of which are healthy and one that is on the turn. He bins the shitty one and eats the ever-so slightly inferior orange from the remaining three (note that it is still still very healthy and far from the turn). Mmm, it’s delicious, he scores a dizzying 90% satisfaction, harvesting nine enjoyment points in the process.

On day two, he only has two oranges left, but they’re still lush oranges, bursting with life and zingy fruitiness. He chooses the slightly weaker one of the two but it’s still a cracking orange. He scores 70% satisfaction, collecting seven enjoyment points.  On day three, he only has one orange left, the leader of the pack, the SAS of the orange world, the never-say-die alpha male, the king of the hill. He eats it, he derives 70% satisfaction and collects a further seven enjoyment points.

On day four he has no oranges left, but he doesn’t give a shit, he’s sick of oranges anyway and he doesn’t want to turn into a bloody orange!

Total enjoyment points = 9+7+7 = 23

If it were only oranges that would be OK, but sadly this is mirrored all too often through other facets of my life (and maybe yours too), for I also apply similar ‘orange’ logic to other daily challenges – like selecting underpants for example:

I have 10 pairs of underpants in my pants drawer. Three pairs are my absolute faves – comfortable, roomy yet secure, airy, stylish (in case of road traffic accident) – and seven pairs are getting old and a little tired. They’re also slightly tight fitting (I think they must have shrunk in the wash). They look a bit like old man’s pants too, somewhat dated and embarrassing if I’m brutally honest with myself.

So which pair do I choose? I choose one of the seven shitty pairs obviously, my logic dictating it’s best to save the good ones for another day. Satisfaction 20%. On day two, I repeat the aforementioned logic, selecting another pair of ill fitting, moribund Y-fronts, satisfaction 20%. This repeats the entire week, at which point I do some washing so at the beginning of week two I have 10 fresh pairs of pants, three nice pairs and seven shitty pairs.  Week two, by the same logic, I wear shitty pairs all week.

Let’s say the average pair of underpants delivers 10 units of enjoyment, my weekly enjoyment haul from my pants is a measly 2 x 7 = 14*, whereas the superior logician reaps (3 x 10) + (4 x 2) = 38*.

 

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Conclusion – live life every day, like it’s your last. Wear nice pants and eat fresh oranges.

 

 

* assumes only 1 weekly wash of smalls

 

Shitty food and corporate skullduggery

Over recent years I’ve read more than my fair share of diet/nutrition books and been convinced (or misled, more on this later) into believing many different fads and diets.

A couple of decades ago I felt the secret lay in supplements, or optimum nutrition as Patrick Holford called it. In many ways it was a precursor to low carb, so credit to Patrick for getting behind that early bandwagon I suppose, but it also seemed to rely on you having to buy lots of supplements – vitamins, minerals, powders, shakes – all conveniently available from Patrick’s online store.

I then looked into Atkins. I lost weight, all the while thinking it absolutely ridiculous that it could be in any way good to consume so much meat and so little fruit and veg. Atkins has now rebranded as a low carb diet. It also has a shop too where you can but shitty low carb, processed foods and snacks at sky high prices.

I then investigated the The Paleo Diet. It seemed to make a lot of sense – to eat natural food, like our early ancestors did, because after all that’s how we’ve been designed, optimised by evolution over thousands of years. This made a lot of sense – eat lean meat, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds. But what about all that meat … ?

And so it went on, through LCHF diets and on all the way through dalliances with pescetarianism, fruitarianism, to vegetarianism, veganism, and then on to whole food, plant based nutrition.

I’m slowly forming my own conclusions and adopting an eating pattern that seems to work for me on several levels, but I am painfully aware other people don’t need my opinions ramming down their throats. I’m aware food choices are deeply personal and there is no ‘one size fits all’. People shouldn’t preach, they should just inform, educate and debate and let individuals make their own choices.

I’m also of the belief that the biggest and most important debate shouldn’t be between the vegan, the vegetarian, the pescatarian, the paleo and the fruitarian. The real issue we need to debate, the real enemy we need to face, is real (natural) food vs. processed food.

Putting ethical/moral issues to one side for a moment, there’s little evidence that moderate amounts of well cared for, outdoor farmed meat does you any harm, and meat can in fact provide you with many of the vital macronutrients we need to fuel our bodies. Heavily processed meat on the other hand appears to be problematic, as does intensively farmed meat.

There is no evidence to suggest vegetables are bad for you, and in fact they undoubtedly provide you with many of the vital macronutrients we need to fuel our bodies. But if you deep freeze a carrot, transport it over a thousand miles, inject it with chemicals to enhance shelf life, add sugar for ‘extra taste’ because you depleted all the natural flavours, and then mix it sparingly into TV dinners, you can get a much greater bang for your corporate carrot buck. And instead of getting a cheap, wholesome, nutritious and natural vegetable, the consumer gets a rather bland, sugary, nutritionally bereft orangey, floppy, lifeless sticky thing floating in a gloopy ‘soup’ which can be sold at a great profit.

There is no evidence that whole fruits are bad for you, and in fact they provide us with many of the vital macronutrients we need to fuel our bodies. But if you extract just a very small amount of the juice, add carbonated water, even more sugar AND aspartame, add some preservatives to improve shelf-life, add stabiliser and phenylanaline, you get a can of fizzy drink with 23g of sugar, more than 25% of the UK daily allowance for a female adult.

Hopefully you get the point – natural foods are generally good, processed foods are generally shit and it is these sugary drinks, sugary snacks, sugary breakfast cereals, shitty white breads, sugary desserts, salty TV dinners, chemically infused ready meals, mechanically recovered and reconstructed chicken nuggets which are the real menace and which are killing us quickly.

The evidence is out there waddling down our high streets and camped on our sofas and GP waiting rooms for all to see. We are fatter than ever before, we have more diabetes sufferers than ever before, more cardiovascular disease than ever before, more incidences of cancer than ever before. So much for progress.

I’m not saying this is all down to diet – I’m sure environmental and hereditary factors play a role here too – but the food we put inside our bodies undoubtedly plays a very significant and very dominant part in the current health crisis.

I think the message is finally getting out there, but only if you look hard enough, and even then the scientific messaging and evidence is still confused. Scholars may now know the problems are more to do with sugars rather than fats, they may know the chemicals we add to prolong shelf life can be carcinogenic, they may also know that natural food is better than processed food, but if you don’t have the time or the inclination to research this stuff yourself, you could be forgiven for thinking all is well is the world of modern food.

And that’s because the messages being transmitted from our supermarket aisles are intentionally muddled and often very biased for sinister reasons, specifically aimed at keeping the muggles in the dark.

Food industry funding of nutritional science is plain wrong. Coca cola paying scientists to  shift the blame away from diet and onto exercise is just ethically corrupt. This is deliberate obfuscation of the facts solely designed to confuse and mislead. This is corporate marketing at its worst.

I know we have to be practical here. We have a free market where people and corporations should be allowed to create and innovate however they see fit. And at the end of the day it’s down to us, the consumers, to use our intelligence and common sense, but let’s also be fair. There is such a thing as corporate social responsibility.

The debate of meat vs fish vs fruit vs plants should remain a secondary issue until we once and for all gain a fair and transparent view on the damage we are really doing with our modern, processed, corporate fronted, so-called dietary advice.

Food politics

food politics

You won’t ever stop some folk from eating what they want, and of course that’s their prerogative, but let’s at least lay the facts out for all to see, once and for all, so that we can all participate on a level playing field.

The two faces of an English September …

It’s September and it’s a bit shit outside. This is England and our lousy summer is over.

A summer that started so promisingly, with BBQs firing and drinks fizzing as far back as May. And back then we all thought this was it, this was going to be just like the summer of ’76 – that sizzling, scorching, dream of a summer when us kids played out for six long, glorious weeks, from dawn until dusk.

We think of ’76 every year, but like every other year, this one wasn’t to be. June was hotter than average, but wetter than average too, and this pattern repeated through July. August was cool and wet. Rain never seemed far away these past months.

And so here we are, the week that children, teachers and MPs return to school and work, the week our roads and public transport networks regain their familiar bloated, unkempt and overcrowded personas.

After a summer of over indulging, it’s time to can the booze, time to wheel out those empty promises of healthy eating and regular exercise in the safe knowledge they will be long discarded once again before October is out.

The clouds are forming, the first leaves are falling alongside the raindrops and the central heating is starting to creak and burp into life.

Deep breath ladies and gentleman, here we go.

Janus, the god of beginnings, transitions and endings. September is Janus with two faces, one looking back, reflecting on the summer that’s gone, one looking forward, excitedly planning for the autumn and winter to come.

Less than four months to Christmas, initial plans are afoot – who should we invite? what days shall we take off? what about new years eve?

Is that boiler actually working?

It’s time for jumpers, time for soups, casseroles and stews. Time for hot brews, time to snuggle down and watch TV, time for good BBC dramas, time for decent films at the cinema.

Sod the boiler, it’s time for log fires. Put the lawn mower in the shed, get out the rake. Time for rosy cheeks and wellington boots, time for long walks in scarves and gloves. Look at those leaves turning brown and gold. Let’s make a fire!

It’s September and it’s a bit shit outside. This is England and our beautiful autumn is just beginning.

autumn2

 

The Pringles Paradox

I’m sitting in my hotel room, and on the table beside me is a small tube of Pringles crisps. They’re Paprika flavour, not my favourite, but they’re Pringles, and I like them. A lot.

So I have to make a decision – do I eat them or not? I run through the pro’s and cons:

Pro’s: Tasty
Cons: Nutritionally poor, fattening, costly (I haven’t checked if they’re complementary or chargeable, I don’t want to know)

So on the face of it the decision is quite clear, I shouldn’t eat them, esp when you factor in that I am due to head out for a meal shortly.

But humans aren’t rational/machines that run purely on logic, we also have to factor in emotion. In my case my emotional desire to eat them trumps the downsides, I am prepared to jeopardise my health and finances in order to satisfy my desire for taste and so I eat them.

But I eat them in a very mindful way, I don’t just scoff them.  I enjoy the tasty hit from each bite, but it is immediately counterbalanced by a monotonically increasing sense of guilt (another human emotion). The tasty hit dissipates quickly, driving me on to eat another to repeat the sensation, and then another. These highs are short lived, but the lows (guilt) stay longer, accumulating bite by bite.

I’m midway through the tube, I’ve started so I’ll finish. It’s like a fever, I cant stop, I need more, I finish the tube.

If my happiness was X before I ate the crisps, it’s now X-Y. I’m definitely sadder as well as being financially worse off than before I ate the damned things. But I’m 52, I knew that, I’ve been here many times before, yet I still do it.

I now know the correct approach would have been to forego the crisps and at least retain my happiness level of X, nay X+Y, for surely I would have felt more righteous after resisting such temptation?

Instead I now carry a guilt into my evening that won’t leave, and as I wander the streets of Den Haag with colleagues, searching out a restaurant, I feel like I’ve wasted an opportunity. I might as well get drunk and eat animal flesh.

X-Y-Z.  That’s Pringles for you.

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Late onset vegetarianism?

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I played at being vegetarian in my mid 20s when I shared a house with one, and I was about 85% successful, having occasional lapses whenever I returned home to my parents for a Sunday roast, or gorged on a kebab after a heavy session on the beer. I was ever so pretentious back then, and whilst I claimed I did it for moral and ethical reasons, I am fairly sure I did it because I couldn’t be arsed to cook my own tea. It lasted about a year, and then after the novelty faded I lapsed back into my old, omnivorian ways.

Fast forward nearly 30 years and hopefully stripped of most of the pretension I carried through my youth, I now find myself once again thinking more and more about vegetarianism.

I think initially it was for health reasons.  Health, and specifically healthy eating, are topics I spend a lot of time researching these days. Ageing is another topic I think about a lot too, and I think it was this impending fear of death that spurred me on to find healthier ways of living, and better ways of eating.

However, the more I looked into meat, the less convinced I was that it was bad for you. Certainly eating too much meat isn’t good, and smoked/processed meats seem to be particularly dodgy, but I couldn’t find much argument against eating modest amounts of high quality meat. After all it’s filled with stuff we need – iron, protein, zinc, B vitamins, magnesium, the list goes on … and so I couldn’t logically discount meat on health grounds, at least not in moderation.

But reading up on this stuff further, I learnt more about the way our meat is farmed. The ladybird book of our childhood depicting a farm where the calf frolics with the piglet whilst the hens sit playfully on the red tractor, is seemingly a long way from the truth. I’m not going to go into what I discovered here, it’s all online should you want to know more, suffice to say I found it very disturbing indeed.

4b-fun-at-the-farm-ladybird

I watched videos of slaughterhouses, not extreme cases, but everyday slaughterhouses. I forced myself to do this, on the basis that if I eat meat I should at least be aware how the meat is produced. But it was hard. Should you want to take a look for yourself, here’s one example from Belgium. This is how your pork is made. It’s very, very difficult to watch. So difficult in fact that it has forced me to seriously reconsider vegetarianism, not on health grounds, but on the basis of cruelty. If that’s what a pig has to go through so I can eat sausages, then I’m not sure I want any part of it.

So that’s animal cruelty, but what about the ethics? Is it right to kill animals? Well not really, although one can argue that if we rear animals for eating, we are creating lives that otherwise would never have existed. If we take the grim, slaughterhouse cruelty of death out of the equation and assume instead that the Ladybird book of farming were true, where Farmer Giles leads the family cow into a field, has a quiet word in his or her ear and painlessly ends its long and beautiful life, it’s still questionable to me whether that’s ethical. Speciesism says that it’s OK to kill that animal (the cow), but not that animal (the dog), unless you live in Korea where it’s OK to kill both. We eat chicken, pigeon possibly, but not squirrels or rats. Or guinea pigs. Double standards everywhere, no coherent logic, no consistency. Speciesism, ageism, racism – think about it for long and you spot a certain trend.

And then there’s the environmental aspects of the meat industry: Cowspiracy. Once again, utterly shocking. We shower instead of bathing, we research more environmentally friendly cars, we recycle our carrier bags, yet none of it even comes close to countering the environmentally disastrous and potentially catastrophic impacts of large scale, global factory farming. Cowspiracy is a well made and humorous film and well worth a watch (free on Netflix), and I urge you to watch it. Don’t worry, it’s not grim like the slaughterhouse.

And so here I am, aged 52. I still eat meat because its easier to eat meat than not eat meat, particularly in a house of meat eaters, but it’s getting harder. Whilst I enjoy the taste of meat, whenever I eat it now it’s tainted with a growing sense of guilt and dare I say some shame and slight disgust.  I ate meat twice this past week. You can’t be a little bit pregnant I hear you say, and you’re right. I’m a hypocrite. Whether I ate meat once, or 21 times in a week, makes no difference ethically. One could argue it makes a difference environmentally perhaps – if everyone ate less meat, less animals would be killed due to falling demand, etc. Less meat consumption also means less cruelty, but you’re still endorsing cruelty. Hypocritical

Oh and then there’s dairy farming. Milk and egg production are arguably just as cruel and ethically wrong as meat farming. Some claim even more so. And I have huge issues here too, and more exposed double standards. I gave up drinking cow’s milk two years ago, yet I still eat cheese, and I eat eggs.  I could at least source eggs locally, eggs that haven’t been factory farmed exploiting chickens locked in dark cages. And by consuming less cow’s milk I can claim I am making at least some impact on the numbers of dairy cows, but it’s still hypocritical, and it’s still only a start.

I really don’t know if I’m brave enough to ever become vegetarian, let alone vegan but morally, ethically I feel I really should try. A possible halfway house is to become pescatarian, eating fish only, but this is still dodgy ground for any moral crusader. Like it’s OK to eat a fish but not a cow or a pig? But, it might be argued, it’s a start. It’s a move in the right direction along the ethical/cruelty spectrum that goes something like this:

Omnivore -> Pescatarian -> Vegetarian -> Vegan -> Fruitarian.

Becoming a fruitarian is just silly, becoming a vegan is very, very hard and vegetarianism is extremely challenging. Pescatarianism might be a stepping stone, but if you’re heading that way for moral and ethical reasons it’s difficult to make that your end stop.

 

 

Words and wars

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Whilst catching up with my backlog of queued podcasts earlier this week, I heard a phrase in reference to the current global war on terrorism that caught my attention.  I don’t remember it exactly but it went along the lines of:

“There are only ever conversations and then wars”

The point being that all we ever have to secure peace is dialogue, discussion or negotiation and once that ends all we have is a reversion to violence on some level.  It’s when talks stall that violence starts, and that’s true whether it’s a local neighbourhood dispute over loud music, or two nations disputing the ownership of land. The magnitudes and implications may be very different, but the processes of negotiation on every level lead ultimately to only one of two outcomes:

negotiate -> compromise or agree -> resolution
negotiate -> fail to reach solution -> violence

It’s rather obvious I guess, but I’d never looked at it in this way, that at a very basic level, all we have in life, to safeguard our desire for peace, safety and happiness, comes down to words and exchange of ideas. Just that. Nothing else.

Whether spoken or written, words give us the ability to set ourselves apart from all other species, to truly become great. Carefully constructed groups of words form ideas and underpin arguments and reason, leading to cures against disease, improvements in technology that lead to improvements in the quality of all of our lives, and the ability to change opinion, to reach consensus, to compromise and reason, ultimately underpinning the very fabric of civilisation as we know it.

And given the importance of words, it is becoming increasingly worrying how social media echo chambers are distorting how we all perceive the world, and therefore how we communicate and interact with the world in our daily lives.

Such echo chambers have always existed, albeit in slightly different forms. Some people always buy The Daily Mail because it satisfies their right wing leanings. Most importantly and most dangerously, it closes the circle by emphasising and endorsing  pre conceived thinking and opinions. If you read The Daily Mail, you read how immigrants are to blame for the economy, lack of housing, demise of the healthcare system and so on, because you read it day after day after day in your newspaper.

Of course this isn’t just a right wing phenomenon. If I care about animal welfare, with a few clicks of a button, all I see all day are stories of cruelty to animals. If I believe the world is run by an elite lizard illuminati I can surround myself in conspiracy stories to back up and endorse my concerns. If I believe man never landed on the moon and it was all a hoax, there are over 137,000 online articles to immerse myself in to ‘uncover the truth’.

And today we don’t just have newspapers to construct our echo chamber, we also have Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat etc, where we get to select and customise our feed content to suit. We determine who makes up our timeline, and so if I am a racist I choose to follow racists who also follow racists, so when I wake on a morning and turn on my smartphone I am bombarded by memes, opinion pieces, photographs and videos that underpin my pre-formed views of the world. Many of us get most, if not all, our information from such places these days. And with fewer and fewer news corporations with increasing levels of power, we are starting to see this also on our TVs and radios.

With very little effort at all, before long, we are all cocooned into our own customised, polarised, filtered views of the world. We experience the same world events but have our own personalised echo chambers to do the interpretation for us, serving it up to us on a 4.8″ super AMOLED HD touchscreen platter.

And if you are President of the United States of America, you follow just 43 people on Twitter, most who either have the word ‘Trump’ in their surname, or who conform to the very same views of your own.  27.7M followers, following the most powerful person on the planet, who in turn follows just 43 people.  This is Trump’s echo chamber. This is the source of his words, the cradle of his ideas. This is where his opinions are formed, where legislation is constructed. This is Trump’s World.

Words and wars – Ne’er a truer word.

Running to stand still …

Today was one of those special days when the sun came out and shone brightly all day long. Supermarkets were selling BBQ food by the skip load, lawnmowers were purring, the birds were singing and everyone appeared to be in a good mood.

And I had to go for a run. I just had to. There was no freewill involved, this was an executive order issued from upon high, and so I strapped on my lime green running shoes and I ran …

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Within seconds of starting my run I felt real joy, which sounds a little stupid and Hollywoodesque, but its the most accurate word I can come up with. It was like I was in sync with the world (there I go again). I felt the cool breeze on my skin (stop it), marvelled at the blue sky and cotton white clouds (no really, stop it), smelled the flowers in the fields (oh ffs), heard the birds in the trees (tra-la-la) and felt like an integral part of this sunny day, like I was somehow a piece of the jigsaw, instead of the jigsaw builder (better).

And that’s what running does to me, it’s what running does for me. It makes me feel whole. Running for me is an inclusive experience because it connects the dots and joins up the pieces. Running is the thread that binds me to the world, and for a few moments I stop being the passenger who watches the world go by, instead I become part of the world’s fabric.

I often consider myself a spectator. In a meeting room full of business people, I’m continually scanning the room, trying to work out or second guess people’s back stories, trying to see what lies behind their corporate facade. I’m the same at a party, on the outside looking in, searching for clues, gauging the atmosphere, trying to read between the lines. I float around the edges of conversations, a few feet above my own right shoulder, looking down on and witnessing events, but never really being part of them.

A consequence of such behaviour is a feeling of disengagement. I berate myself for not participating more in meetings, or for not chatting more at parties where everyone else appears so much more involved. Instead my mind appears distracted, in absentia, rarely in the ‘now’, usually to be found trying to guess the future or poring over the past.

Except when I’m running.  When I run I flow within the world (don’t go there). There is no third person at these times and no shoulder to sit on. The world is running with me and I’m running with the world. The world is running within me, not without me (another U2 lyric?).

Running won’t make me rich or make me a better person, but it does give me a sense of connectedness and purpose. Running opens up a brief window into a place where I suspect many luckier people already inhabit – people in meetings, people at parties, many of my friends and family, I suspect they’re all there already.

I wonder if a life can ever be lived wholly in flow.

In the meantime I look out of the window, somewhat disengaged, looking forward to my next run.

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This post was written on Sunday 9th April, hottest day of the year so far …

Nothing to blog about …

manatpc

Not me, I have more hair

I let my blog run dry. I tried often, but I couldn’t find anything to blog about that didn’t sound contrite or repetitive. I just kept staring at the blank page, stood up from my desk and walked away. And then I did that again and again, several times over.

I probably played a game on my iPhone, or I read Twitter. Or Facebook. Whatever it was, it was almost certainly time-stealing, counter productive and procrastinating in nature. To be fair, in fleetingly brief periods of positivity, maybe I also considered going for a run, but then remembered my sore back and tight hamstrings and thought better of it.

Arriving at the conclusion that I couldn’t run on account of my ‘tighter-than-a-tourniquet’ hamstrings probably made me feel even more fed up, compounding the already fed up feeling of Blogger’s Block that kicked off this maudlin’ malaise in the first place.

Things then got worse.  I scratched an itch on my head and I felt dry skin. I burned my head skiing. That’s not a sentence you see very often.  I have hair, I definitely have hair. If someone were to describe me they might say … ‘Andy is average height, has a big fat blotchy red round moon face, a beer belly and grey hair‘. ‘Hair‘ would definitely be in there.  Admittedly it’s thinning a little, but still, I undoubtedly have hair, and that’s definitely noticeable when you see me, and yet I didn’t see one other single person with a burned scalp on that skiing trip.  Not one. Even bald men had unburned scalps, I kid you not.

Which begs the question, why did my scalp burn? It can’t have just been strong sun, or there would have been other casualties. Ergo, I must have a scalp problem. It’s probably sensitive. In fact if you were to say anything vaguely hurtful to my scalp, it would probably cry, storm-off to its bedroom, sulk, not come down for tea and withdraw from society for days, only to emerge wearing all black clothing and a sullen smile. It wouldn’t have a pale complexion though, it would have a bright red one.

So I can’t blog any more, I can’t run on account of my bad back and ‘steel-guitar-stringed’ hamstrings, and I can’t go out in daylight in case my scalp catches fire.

I have something else to confess. On my last day of skiing, in fact on my last downhill run, I tried to break my speed record, as recorded on my skiing app. My current top speed was 68.7km/h, and due to having a bit of an OCD thing especially around numbers, I decided I needed to break 70km/h. And I tried, but at around 69.993km/h I lost control, my left ski flew off to the left towards a group of young French people and I somersaulted a couple of times, banging my head in the process.

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Not me, but you get the idea … #wearahelmet

If you’re reading my blog for the first time you might be mistaken for thinking I’m aged 17, but I’m in fact 52 and I really should know better. 70km/h isn’t even very impressive. I’m an awful skier and 60km/h is probably 10km/h beyond my best capabilities, so why I thought trying to achieve 70km/h on my last run on my last day, without a helmet, is so pathetically idiotic to beggar any semblance of vague belief.

Anyway, I did that, and I returned home with a few injuries but kept them to myself as it was all a little embarrassing. Nevertheless, when I awoke the next morning and couldn’t lift my neck off my pillow, and then felt very dizzy when I eventually did, I decided to see my GP.

I was diagnosed with whiplash. Thankfully no obvious or sinister signs of head trauma (scalp aside), but just as I was leaving, the GP asked if she could take my blood pressure. I obliged. It was high. She was concerned. She tested it again. Same.

So, I have blogging constipation, a fused series of vertebrae, tighter-than-a-snare-drum hamstrings, ultraviolet-shy scalp and arterial-busting blood pressure.

I think I’ve put weight on too.

 

What have you done today to make you feel proud?

In July 2004, London was sitting in 4th place out of the 5 contenders to host the 2012 Olympic games, but just a year later, on 6th July, 2005, the International Olympic Committee awarded the 2012 Olympics to London.  I know exactly where I was at that moment. My eldest son was off school sick, he was tucked up in bed watching TV and I was in the room when a live news bulletin interrupted our viewing to announce the 2012 Olympics decision …

The London 2012 bid team had played an absolute blinder, and set in motion a series of events lasting more than seven years, culminating in one of the greatest Olympics ever held. It didn’t end with the campaigning, it was also in the planning, the preparation and the execution. Historically, olympic projects have always been beset with financial problems and delays, but somehow London 2012 was delivered on time (if not quite to budget), regenerating a part of London long forgotten to many, even those that lived in the UK and even those of us that worked in London.

And as if that wasn’t enough, the Team GB athletes delivered the greatest athletic performance the country has ever seen.  For GB (~60 million population) to finish third in the medal table behind USA (>300 million) and China (>1.3 billion) was just staggering. It was as if the momentum of the successful bid and the enthusiasm the nation wore like an overcoat, somehow fuelled the athletes to also overachieve.

We had government funding and we had a willing public, not just the fans that filled every nook and cranny at every event, but also the army of volunteers who helped, supported and advised, from Heathrow in the west, all the way across town to Salford in the east.

Being British, national pride has often been tinged with guilt for me, as it often brings out an ugliness that seems to have its roots in our imperialistic past when Britannia was arrogant enough to believe she truly ruled the waves. The Union Jack has long been associated with extremism and thuggery, yet somehow at London 2012, the flag was reclaimed as simply the colours of a very proud nation.

London 2012 was a great example of humanity at its best and Britons at their finest. It wasn’t just about the medals, it was also about collaboration, about community, about belief and passion, about friendships, and most importantly about pride.

Fast forward four and a half years to 2016, the same people, but now divided, tangled up in a messy divorce from the EU. Much of that national pride has turned to anger and discord, and politics once again feels dirty and corrupt, no longer a lottery funded cause for the greater good. And unlike 2012, where we opened our borders and outstretched our arms to the world, post-Brexit, we seem to be once again pulling up the drawbridges and closing our doors, not just to outsiders, but to our neighbours too.

We seem to consume our daily news these days through gritted teeth and half closed eyes, wondering what on earth will happen next. We have a government which appears incompetent and ill prepared for Brexit and the challenges that lay ahead. Brexit seems to have beaten us down and created a disharmony that feels a world away from London 2012, and our 2012 passion seems lost in a difficult and uncertain 2016.

But it needn’t be this way.  National pride can, and should, be a force for good, free from any strain of politics, government or economic circumstance. And pride should never be about superiority. French people should be just as proud to be French, Americans to be American, Germans to be German, as I am to be British. London 2012 just reminded us British that we have a lot to be proud of, in the same way other nations should rightly be proud of their own achievements – achievements that should be openly shared and celebrated across a unified world, not envied in a divisive one.

Whatever happens in the coming months, post-Brexit, I’d like to think we in the UK can all regain our own sense of national pride, in whatever way seems fitting for us. Pride can be misplaced and misinterpreted, but it can also be a good thing when kept in context.

The following video encapsulates perfectly what pride meant around London 2012. It’s as funny and quirky as it is beautiful, and it’s joyously optimistic too. It portrays a better time perhaps, but one that can be reclaimed, even in today’s turbulent times.

And we don’t need our governments to do that for us, we can start doing that for ourselves, in whatever way feels right for us.

What have you done to make yourself proud today?